Manager Mike Horton twisted off the small nozzle that connected a natural gas tank to a spigot attached to the back of his truck. He popped the hood and then cranked the engine.
“Watch this,” he said. “And listen.”
After a moment, there was an almost imperceptible click among the otherwise unremarkable din of idle running. Horton pointed to the motor.
That click, he said, represents something far ordinary. It’s the future, he said.
“Now, this truck’s running nothing but natural gas,” he said. “Can you hear a difference? See a difference? No? Because there is no difference.”
The small fleet of trucks at Northeast Mississippi Natural Gas in Mantachie is the first in the area to run on compressed natural gas, or CNG. Eight months ago, the trucks were converted to run almost solely on natural gas, a move that Horton said saves his office thousands of dollars in fuel costs each month.
After being converted, the vehicles run on a combination of gasoline and natural gas — gas to get the engine going; natural gas after it starts. Compressed natural gas uses a conversion called GGE, or gas gallons equivalent, to equate with the mileage per gallon ratio of traditional petroleum burning vehicles.
Currently, natural gas costs between $1.50 and $2 “per gallon.” Because natural gas is relatively inexpensive compared to petroleum — this is especially true for natural gas companies — it cost far less to run vehicles burning CNG. For example, in September, Northeast Mississippi Natural Gas saved more than $1,206 in fuel cost. In November, that number jumped to $1,644. December’s savings totaled more than $2,098.
Horton believes natural gas will be the next big fuel source, outpacing both electricity and ethanol. Any kind of motor vehicle can be converted — cars, large trucks, forklifts, school busses, street sweepers, etc. For a few thousand dollars, any consumer vehicle can be converted to run natural gas; many vehicles are being sold that way already.
“Everything that can run on gasoline can be burning natural gas,” he said.
It’s cleaner, too. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, burning natural gas produces far fewer emissions than standard petroleum gasoline.
“When you convert one garbage truck to [natural gas], it’s like pulling 320 cars off the road, as far as emissions go,” he said. “You think about that.
“You can’t even commit suicide by running it in your garage,” he added with a blunt laugh. “It’s that clean.”
For all its advantages, however, the switch to natural gas isn’t necessarily wholly beneficial. Looking at the long term, natural gas is still a fossil fuel with a limited supply. According to the U.S. Energy Administration, the U.S. has enough natural gas to last approximately 92 years at current consumption rates.
Additionally, while it’s not a problem for a fleet of company or government vehicles with easy access to a source of natural gas, regular drivers might be a little more reluctant to take the plunge. As a legitimate replacement for gasoline, CNG is still in its toddler years and stations where drivers can fill up on natural gas are still limited, especially in this area. In fact, the gas office in Mantachie is one of two in Mississippi.
Drive further out into America’s heartland, however, and fueling stations become much more frequent … potential signs that CNG is indeed the future of fueling.
Horton said it’s only a matter of time before fueling stations begin to offer both types of fuel side-by-side. It may take years, but Horton believes it’s on the way.
“It’s coming,” Horton said of the gradual switch to natural gas. “In the U.S., we have more natural gas than Saudi Arabia has oil. We don’t have to import it or refine it; when you get it out of the well, you put it in your truck and go.”
He said he’d like to see more local municipalities start converting their vehicle fleets over to natural gas, adding that he believes the savings in fuel will far outweigh the initial cost of converting the vehicles.